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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Seven

1840s: The Defiant Decade

In the weeks and months that followed the adjournment of the 1837 Harrisburg Anti-Slavery Convention, much was published regarding what was allegedly said and done inside the walls of Shakespeare Hall. There had been a lot of interest in town about "the zeal, nearly akin to fanaticism" said to characterize such gatherings, and as a result, the halls of the convention were packed with a considerable number of spectators hoping for a good show.

What they saw, depending upon their point of view, was civil, reasoned debate featuring several "smart fellows," and "a number of speeches...delivered on sundry 'high pressure' resolutions." What they did not see, and which many locals had hoped to see, was a disruption of the proceedings by those who held opposing views. Two Harrisburg newspapers that were neither zealously anti-slavery nor rabidly anti-abolitionist in their politics and reporting remarked on the "utmost good order" that prevailed the entire time, a note they seemed to find very reassuring.

The Pennsylvania Reporter, though it disapproved of the goals of the abolitionists as "interference with the rights of others," asserted, "We disapprove, with equal warmth, of any attempt to disturb their proceedings, or create any confusion in their meetings. The friends of immediate abolition have the right of choosing their own course in relation to this question." Even stronger sentiments regarding "free discussion" were expressed by the editor of the Harrisburg Chronicle, who wrote:

We contend that colonizationists and abolitionists enjoy, alike, the privilege of free discussion. And so far as our feeble efforts can avail, they shall continue to enjoy this privilege. We should not call it a privilege; it is a right, belonging to both, and they should enjoy it; nay, they must enjoy it, or we are not free.76

Free discussion was on the minds of the anti-abolitionists, too, who held their own meetings in response to the much-publicized anti-slavery convention. A few weeks after the anti-slavery convention finished its business, notices were posted around town and in Susquehanna Township that a public meeting would be held in the schoolhouse near Benjamin Hailman's property. The meeting, which was well attended by citizens of that township, was ostensibly billed as a means of electing trustees to manage and care for the schoolhouse, which was recognized as community property.

Five trustees were elected, "so that the object of the erection of the school-house may be kept in view and promoted." A subsequent resolution, which gave the trustees the power to "permit preaching in the said school-house by any of the various christian denominations," went on to reveal the underlying motives of the organizers, with the further stipulation "but in no event shall they open the door to lectures on abolitionism, negroism, and amalgamationism." The resolution did allow the trustees to allow such banned lectures, but only with the permission of a majority of the subscribers—an unlikely event considering that the next resolution, like the previous, was unanimously adopted by those in attendance.

It succinctly stated the beliefs of those opposed to abolition, saying, "The attempts now making to raise an excitement in Pennsylvania on the subject of an immediate abolition of slaves, have their origin among foreign enemies to the Union of these states, to our republican institutions, and the tranquility of the people, and are enforced by hired emissaries from neighboring states to lecture in Pennsylvania for the wicked and dangerous purpose of making the 'Key-Stone' of the federal arch appear falsely to southern sisters as an enemy to their peace and rights, contrary to the principle and feelings of her citizens."77 So much for the value of "free discussion" and keeping in view the purpose of education.

Harrisburg hosted another state convention a few months later, in May, but this was a formally announced anti-abolition convention, billed as the Integrity of the Union Convention. Local anti-abolition supporters met in the Unitarian Church on the south side of Locust Street, on Saturday evening, 4 March 1837, to elect delegates to the state meeting. Those delegates joined others from around the state at the convention, held the first week of May at the Dauphin County Courthouse.

The overriding purpose of the state convention appears to have been to ease the fears of slaveholders in the Southern states regarding the purpose and beliefs of Pennsylvania's citizens. A number of resolutions were passed, in general opposition to the aims of the anti-slavery crowd, but the culminating tone, when all were considered as a whole, was as stated by a convention correspondent to the Pennsylvania Sentinel: "to assure our brethren of the Southern States, that we, as a state, are opposed to the schemes of the immediate abolitionists, and that we will to the utmost of our ability defend and sustain the constitution of the United States, and that compact by which we are united as one people."78

Curiously, one of the delegates to the Integrity of the Union Convention was anti-slavery advocate Thaddeus Stevens. Taking a cue from previous colonizationist infiltrations of anti-slavery meetings, Stevens and numerous advocates of free discussion in Gettysburg showed up at an April anti-abolition organizational meeting to send delegates to the Harrisburg convention. He had enough friendly votes to get himself elected as a delegate from Adams County, so in the first week of May, he showed up at the courthouse to take part in the convention to oppose immediate abolition, joining about one hundred anti-abolition delegates from around Pennsylvania.

His motive in attending, however, differed greatly from the rest of the delegates. Stevens was determined to derail as much of the proceedings as he could. He may not have been in attendance on the opening day of the convention, as the published proceedings do not show any remarks from Stevens. In light of the opening remarks from a Monroe County delegate expressing the belief that "We come not here to examine the merits or demerits of Slavery…We come here, sir, to oppose the scheme of the immediate Abolitionists, which, if carried into effect, must produce the dissolution of this Union, bring on the horrors of a servile war, and deluge the land with blood." The same speaker then launched into a vile, racist tirade. It is difficult to imagine Stevens keeping quiet in the face of such remarks.

He made his presence strongly known on the second day of the convention, however, as his appearance in the hall was no doubt a cause of considerable concern by many of the delegates. A delegate, the Reverend T. W. Haynes, moved for the passage of a resolution stating that it was "inconsistent for any person who believes in the doctrine of immediate Abolition to hold a seat in this Convention." This resolution was clearly aimed at the presence of Thaddeus Stevens, and Haynes felt it necessary to clarify his intent, by noting "He did not mean to point out any individuals by this resolution…He could not believe that any man would be so lost to all sense of honor, as to come there under a mask, while he knew himself to hold to the mad schemes of the Abolitionists…yet he thought it well some such resolution should be passed, lest any thing might occur to prove it was necessary." The reverend's premonition of trouble was correct, and Stevens, seeing his opening, immediately seized the moment. In reading the following exchange, one can sense the chairman's frustration as he saw control of the convention slipping away to one of his most bitter opponents:

Mr. STEVENS, of Adams county, here rose and attempted to speak. The Chair had hastily inquired if the Convention were ready for the question,--had taken the affirmative, and was just calling for the contrary minds, when Mr. Stevens said—
Mr. President—(some confusion among the members) have I not the floor?
Chair. The vote was carried, I think.
Two members at once. The negative was not called. The vote had not been declared by the Chair if it had been taken.
Chair. Then I suppose you will proceed.
Mr. Stevens. I do not wish to proceed unless I am in order. Will the Chair inform me whether I am?
Chair. Go on, go on; you are on the floor?
Mr. Stevens. Am I in order?
Chair. Go on.

Having wrestled a grudging recognition through his skillful manipulation of parliamentary procedure, Stevens then verbally sparred with Reverend Haynes, with Stevens commanding most of the time and Haynes becoming obviously irritated to the point that his speech became highly agitated, until the Committee on Resolutions returned to the hall from their work, and prepared to make their report. Stevens remained a thorn in the side of the anti-abolitionists during the rest of the convention, challenging resolutions with subtle changes that divided the delegates and generally mocking, with self-deprecating humor, their attempts at passing workable resolutions.

At one point, Stevens proposed a resolution asking whether Congress had the right to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia. He asked for a vote of yeas and nays, as opposed to a general vote. The convention managers, who did not want to take up the more tedious and time demanding yeas and nays vote, denied his request as impossible because, as they were informed by the Clerk, the list of delegates present had already been given to the printer.

Stevens replied, in his most theatrically indignant voice "Sir, this will never do. This 'Glorious Union' is at stake." He then asked that the sergeant-at-arms be sent to retrieve the list, noting that they could all bide their time until his return, but the clerk protested, "The list cannot possibly be had. It is positively gone." At this reply, Stevens lamented, "Alas for the 'Integrity of the Union' here then. Have we nothing to prevent the Convention from crumbling to pieces?" He then proposed that a new list be made up, causing a general uproar.79 It went like that through the rest of the day, and by the time the convention adjourned, it had produced practically nothing of value and certainly nothing to comfort the fears of Pennsylvania's "Southern sisters." The anti-slavery cause moved onward.



The first statewide meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society was held in January 1838 in Harrisburg, at almost exactly the one-year anniversary of its founding, and again in Shakespeare Hall. It featured many of the same speakers and personalities, and like the organizing convention, was not interrupted by opponents of the cause. Nor was it subject to the theatrics that occurred at the anti-abolition convention the previous year. For those reasons, it attracted far less attention and far fewer spectators than had the previous year's anti-slavery convention. The charges of fanaticism by its detractors, it seems, were becoming passé. Local minister Nathan Stem was busy at the convention, having been appointed the previous year as a vice president to the state society. The Telegraph reported on the presence of several females at the hall, "whom we take also to be delegates." It is not apparent, however, that African American delegates shared in any increased responsibilities.

One notable local person in attendance was attorney Charles C. Rawn, who had been giving increased thought to the questions of abolition and African American rights. Once a sturdy supporter of the local colonization movement, with its attendant ideas that immediate emancipation would lead to a race war, Rawn seemed by this time to be seriously questioning those tenets. He dealt with local African American residents and workers daily, and employed an African American woman to clean his home. In his law practice, he represented African American clients from time to time. Although the colonizationists and anti-abolitionists remained strong in Harrisburg and published resolutions for presentation to Congress, Rawn's name ceased appearing on those documents after he heard Jonathan Blanchard speak at the Masonic Hall back in November 1836.

Now, more than a year later, he devoted parts of three successive evenings, on 16, 17, and 18 January, to attend the convention, listening to the speech of William Burleigh, and staying on two nights until the nine o'clock adjournment. All this while his former colonizationist associates, in the pages of the Keystone lambasted the proceedings as promoting "a doctrine, the consequence of which obviously must be a general massacre of the negro race, or a practical amalgamation with them, either of which every sensitive mind regards with loathing and horror." Rawn's sensitive mind, however, seems to have been perceiving things much differently.

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76. Excerpts from the Pennsylvania Reporter and the Harrisburg Chronicle reported in Friend of Man, 15 February 1837.

77. Excerpt from the Keystone, published in Liberator, 18 March 1837.

78. Liberator, 12 May 1837.

79. Transcripts of the proceedings were published in the Harrisburg Telegraph, which had taken a relatively neutral stance on the abolition-versus-colonization question. Those transcripts were reprinted verbatim in the pro-abolition Gettysburg Star. Star and Republican Banner, 15 May 1837.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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